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Jim Sleeper

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As Obama Mishandles the Economy, Pundits Misjudge the Politics

Posted: 11/08/11 10:58 AM ET

The least bad assessment of Obama's failure that has come so far from the blinkered Washington Beltway pundits' worldview (or Beltanschauung, as I immortalized it here in an essay that launched a thousand links and that everyone in the political chattering classes read under the bed covers with a flashlight and pretended not to have seen) comes from Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein's "Obama's Flunking Economy: The Real Cause," in the current New York Review of Books.

Klein flunks, too, in the end, but not before illuminating more of what's wrong with the Washington consensus than Ron Suskind, Fareed Zakaria, Jonathan Chait, and other Beltanschauung habitues have done. Klein is reviewing Suskind's book Confidence Men, which he quite rightly finds flawed because its histrionic, summary judgments of key executive branch and Federal Reserve players obscure their good sides and the obstacles they faced, not so much in themselves or in Obama as in the Republican Congress.

For instance, while Lawrence Summers may well be the con man Suskind says he is, Klein shows that Suskind's own reporting proves counter-intuitively that Summers rightly fought to nationalize Citibank and to advance a large stimulus package, but that this supposed Svengali failed because the administration's political realists, including Obama himself, decided that such initiatives were non-starters in Congress.

But what if Congress is itself the non-starter, in ways that the American people can actually change, as they've done when truth-telling presidents have roused them to do it? That's not a possibility that Klein or any other Beltway pundit can take seriously. "[W]hen the economy gets worse, you're simultaneously in charge and out of options," writes Klein, insinuating himself imaginatively (and also forgivingly) into Obama's supposed worldview. "You came to Washington promising change and now you're begging for patience. It's a crummy situation, and there's no combination of policy proposals or speeches that can get you out of it. But this is the vise that has tightened around Barack Obama's presidency."

"Vise" is a nice metaphor, but does it really excuse the presidential inaction and Washington pundits' apologetics for it? Drew Westen posed that question last summer in a game-changing New York Times essay, "What Happened to Obama?", that brought the wrath of the Beltanschauung down upon him, as I showed in the essay linked above.

An academic psychologist whose best-selling The Political Brain drew him into political consulting with Senate Democrats on the Hill, Westen didn't need to be the brightest bulb in the firmament to have posed his question about the emperor's new clothes. If you're really in a political vise in Washington, as Klein insists, and you can't get anything done, anyway --- if, indeed, "the fundamental constraints on the administration's leaders have not been economic or conceptual, but political," as Klein puts, it -- why not do what politics demands everywhere else but in the Beltway?

Why not get out of Washington for a month or two, as Harry Truman did in 1948, and work the country against what he called the "do-nothing Congress"? If you're Barack Obama, why not tell the people, as he should have done relentlessly last summer, "Look, I appealed to you and you elected me on certain assumptions and expectations. Here's what I've learned about the obstacles we face. Send me a Congress that isn't part of the problem and that can help me finish the job."

Why not deploy the right subordinates and advisers in a full-court press along such lines? Why not revive the network of supporters that you created in 2008 and that you promised but failed to sustain as a political organization?

Klein doesn't ask any of this. The administration's top players "know they need to act," he writes. "But they can't act.... at the scale necessary to really change the economic situation. Republicans won't let them. Between 2009 and 2011, Senate Republicans launched more filibusters than we had seen in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s combined. ...." Should the administration have assaulted the filibuster itself? "I don't consider this plausible," sniffs Klein.

Yet Westen, in a debate with Zakaria and Chait on Charlie Rose that I cited in "Fareed Zakaria's Problem - And Ours," showed that instead of assailing the filibuster directly, it was both plausible and effective to call the votes under it -- and lose them, thereby getting Republicans on record and letting the whole country know that they'd actually come out against certain popular initiatives.

About such bare-knuckled politics, Beltway commentators have little to say. Klein gives us the inevitable, inexorable, crippling worldview in which the people don't exist, except in Pew polls. Meanwhile, the spread and unexpected resiliency of Occupy Wall Street has come out of nowhere on the commentators' horizons and has changed the debate about the political economy.

Obama knows he should have been part of that change this summer, not as one of the Wall Street occupiers but as a truth-teller who could have clarified the challenges they've posed. The president himself told Suskind that "leadership in this office is a matter of helping the American people feel confident."

Yet Klein insists otherwise, suggesting that Obama overreached in promising to give the American people confidence in 2008. He concludes his review by warning, in the classic Beltanschauung "seen it all" manner, that "the president needs to do more than lead. He needs to govern. And when he has so convinced the American people of his leadership that their expectations for his term far exceed his - or anyone's capacity to govern, disappointment results. That's when they go looking for another confidence man - one whose promises aren't sullied by the compromise and concessions made in the effort to deliver results - and the cycle begins anew."

What mean "they," white man? Beltway pundits know that they'll be around for the next presidential confidence man. That is their idea of taking the long view, in which presidents come and go, but keepers of the republican flame like themselves remain.

This seems a bit skewed, in that the enduring question of Obama's presidency may well be one they've refused to pose: Why didn't the man who roused so many Americans in 2008 by offering what seemed a credible narrative of their discontents and at least some credible strategic parameters for confronting them, come back to them when it mattered? Wouldn't that have been at least as "plausible" as staying stuck in the Beltanschauung's vise?